Will Benin get another 'international' president in 2016?

Lionel Zinsou's nomination raises questions about whether Benin's political parties can groom credible contenders for president.

After several declarations and denials, Prime Minister Lionel Zinsou was nominated by Benin’s ruling coalition, the Forces Cauris pour un Bénin Emergent (FCBE), as the only candidate to succeed President Thomas Boni Yayi when the first round of elections are held on 28 February 2016.

Zinsou’s nomination on 26 November puts an end to widespread speculation about who would suceed Boni Yayi.

But it raises several questions about Beninese politics and specifically the choice of leadership for the country’s top job.

Zinsou is a Franco-Beninese whose career spans being an advisor to former French Prime Minister Laurent Fabius, an investment banker at Rothschild, and later head of PAI Partners in Paris. It was just six months ago that he was appointed Benin’s Prime Minister.

What does Zinsou’s profile say about the role and influence of Benin’s diaspora in the country’s national politics? And why does his ‘international’ character seem so decisive in the choice of president for the country? Are political parties unable to select – from their own ranks – a consensual and high-calibre candidate for the highest office?

What does Zinsou’s profile say about the diaspora’s role in Benin’s politics?

Benin’s diaspora is estimated at 4.5 million people, which is nearly half the population of the country itself. It is, particularly with regard to its economic contribution, a strength and an asset to the country. According to the Central Bank of West African States, between 2000 and 2009, annual net transfers from the diaspora amounted to approximately US$28.9 million, representing over 2.4% of Benin's Gross Domestic Product.

Beyond its economic importance, Benin’s diaspora also plays a key role in the democratic debate. Its impact on the election results is still marginal – of 2.5 million potential voters, only about 300 000 are expected to vote in 32 countries in the presidential election. Nevertheless the diaspora has provided two of Benin’s three presidents since the 1990 National Conference that brought democracy – Nicéphore Dieudonné Soglo and Boni Yayi.

Both leaders came at a time when Beninese wanted change, not just in their politicans but also in the country’s governance. Despite resistance and attempts to exclude presidential contenders based on dual nationality or residence clauses, the 1990 Constitution settled once and for all the conditions for election eligibility. A 1995 Constitutional Court challenge over legislation that prohibited candidates with dual citizenship from running in the 1996 presidential election was ruled unconstitutional.

Beninese worry about Zinsou’s loyalty and his ability to govern in their interests

According to Article 44 of the Constitution and Article 336 of the Electoral Code, ‘no person may be a candidate for the office of President unless he is of Benin nationality by birth or acquired for at least ten years’.

In addition, the Dahomey (now Benin) nationality code, which is still in force, provides that an ‘individual who acquires Dahomey nationality enjoys from the date of this acquisition all the rights attached to the status of Dahomey’.

Therefore, unlike the provisions in several other African countries, Benin's constitutional framework does not discriminate on the question of nationality.

Nevertheless, a few months before the presidential election, Benin’s citizens are concerned not so much about Zinsou’s nationality or his past residence status, but his loyalty to Benin and his ability to govern in the interests of Beninese. His appointment as Prime Minister and his designation as the FCBE’s only presidential candidate are perceived, rightly or wrongly by some domestic observers, as a choice imposed by France and an expression of its neocolonial ambitions.

Furthermore, since the 1990s, the political experience of Benin shows that most Beninese are aware of the ‘international’ character of candidates for the highest office. Indeed, the first president of the democratic era, Soglo, as well as the incumbent Boni Yayi, have greatly benefited from their international experience in their climb to power.

The penchant of Beninese for contenders with an international profile could be because they are considered untainted by the country’s numerous financial scandals. They might also be perceived as having fresh solutions to the suffering of their fellow citizens. This trend has become an important dynamic in Benin’s politics, even though there is no consensus on the diaspora’s real contribution to the socio-economic development of the people.

Will Beninese make an exception by voting this time for a ‘local’ candidate?

After 25 years of democracy, Zinsou’s candidacy also highlights the difficulty that political parties face in grooming credible contenders for the top job. All three presidents, two of whom have had an international career, initially entered the picture as ‘independent candidates’ supported by a coalition of political parties with short-term ambitions.

Three months before the presidential elections, this scenario is about to be repeated. With the exception of the FCBE, no other political party has a candidate capable of winning the presidential election. Adrien Houngbédji, the 2011 presidential election candidate of the main opposition coalition – the Union fait la Nation (UN) – is ineligible for the 2016 election because of the age limit.

The UN now seems to be struggling to nominate a new candidate. Even in the case of the FCBE, which managed to choose a candidate, internal tensions are threatening to weaken the coalition. The difficulties these coalitions face is a result of their inability to come up with democratic nomination procedures for selecting their leader. They also struggle to rally behind a single platform, strategy and common goals.

Given the absence of Benin’s four traditional heavyweights of the past two decades namely Bruno Amoussou, Adrien Houngbédji, Idji Kolawolé and Boni Yayi at the next presidential election, the race in 2016 seems more open than ever and there is some uncertainty as to who will be the country’s next president.

Will Beninese make an exception by voting this time for a ‘local’ contender or place their confidence once more in an ‘international’ candidate?

Ella Jeannine Abatan, Junior Fellow, Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis Division, ISS Dakar

Related content